Sex, Shame and Retail

It’s hardly news to those of us who work in the sex retail trade that a lot of folks have difficulty talking about sex. But have you thought about what that means for your customers?

We live in a world that sends a lot of mixed messages about sex. It’s everywhere you look, and it’s rarely talked about with any real honesty. It can be an expression of love, and it’s so dirty that most people can’t even refer to it without euphemisms. It’s something that almost everyone does, and it’s the one thing that almost everyone lies about. It’s no wonder that so many people are confused about sex.

We live in a world that sends a lot of mixed messages about sex. It’s everywhere you look, and it’s rarely talked about with any real honesty.

All of that means that most people are walking around with shame, embarrassment, or guilt about their sex lives. Some of them might never talk about it, even with a partner. Even the folks who can talk about it with a partner might not ever talk about it with anyone else. And while a lot of us might scoff at the idea that we have those emotions, if you’ve ever hesitated to tell your partner about your sexual past, your fantasies, or what turns you on, you’re on the same spectrum. Just because we work in the sex retail world doesn’t mean we’re automatically free from the effects of cultural sexual shame.

When customers come to your stores or websites, they’re bringing all of those difficult feelings with them. It might be really obvious, like the shy woman who can’t make eye contact and rushes out the door, or the guy who asks whether cock rings can fix his erectile dysfunction. Or it might be more subtle, like the man who won’t ask any questions because he can’t admit that he doesn’t know everything about sex. And don’t forget the folks who make loud comments or jokes about your products when they come in with their friends, only to return solo a few days later to buy a dildo or anal toy. Whatever the reason and however it shows up, if you want to maximize sales, you need to know how to make your store or website comfortable and safe for these folks.

One thing you can do is make sure that your staff takes all of your customer’s questions and concerns seriously. I’ve been in a few stores in which I heard staff gossiping, laughing, or making fun of the customer who just left. Sure, they waited until the customer was out the door, but the rest of us heard it and I can guarantee that nobody else in the store was going to be asking any questions. That’s a missed opportunity for cross-sells and upsells.

Another easy step is to remind staff that they need to let the customer guide the interaction. Some people are really comfortable when talking about sex, and you certainly don’t want to coddle them. Other folks, though, need to take smaller steps. Most of the time, your staff won’t know where your customer’s comfort zone is until they interact with them, so make sure they’re trained and ready to look for the cues that will tell them how to handle each situation.

You’d think that this wouldn’t be necessary to tell retailers, but you also need to ensure that your employees will give your customers their attention. I’ve seen store staff barely acknowledge a customer, or not give them eye contact and a friendly smile. That’s bad enough in any kind of retail, but in our industry, it’s even worse. Customers need to feel welcomed before they feel comfortable asking questions. If they don’t open up, that’s another sales opportunity that slips away.

I’m not suggesting that we need to become therapists. But it’s easy for people who work in the sex retail world to forget that most people don’t have the same chances to become as comfortable with sex as we are. Think about that family member or neighbor who changes the topic when you talk about work. A lot of your customers are much the same, and we often lose track of that when we spend so much time around folks who can talk about buttplugs and vibrators.

Successful retail starts with meeting customers where they are. The best way to do that is to remember that they often have much smaller comfort zones than we do, and to train your staff accordingly. When you and your employees know how to help customers feel comfortable, there’s a lot more room to suggest products, answer questions, and boost sales.

Charlie Glickman, PhD, is a sexuality speaker, trainer, writer, blogger and coach. He’s an AA SECT-certified sex educator and has been working in this field for more than 20 years. Charlie is the co-author of The Ultimate Guide to Prostate Pleasure: Erotic Exploration for Men and Their Partners. Find out more about him at CharlieGlickman.com.